Recently, I had a very unsettling experience: I found myself agreeing with some of the worst people on planet earth. Donald Trump. Tucker Carlson. Scott Adams. The editors of the Daily Caller and (shudder) the Gateway Pundit.
While most of what these people say and do is just plain terrible, they seem to have gotten one very big and important issue right: they’ve challenged the until-recently-ubiquitous belief that the COVID-19 virus is of “natural” origin, which is to say that, like so many terrible diseases of the past, COVID (allegedly) originated with animals and migrated over to humans. Indeed, for a brief time, this little animal, called a Pangolin, was thought to be the Typhoid Mary of COVID.
But now it seems more plausible that the real villain of the piece wears a lab coat and works in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a repository of extremely dangerous viruses very conveniently located exactly where the pandemic began, in Wuhan, China — after some sort of lab accident brought one of the viruses the lab had been studying out of the lab and into the human bloodstream. Even worse, the virus that was inadvertently released to the world could have been a sort of supercharged superspreader, genetically modified to be more dangerous than the original virus found in bats. They do that sort of thing at the lab, despite the obvious risks.
Naturally, the WIV has denied that their lab played any part in spreading the virus to the human population. But so far the “natural” animal-to-human explanation of COVID’s origins isn’t holding up all that well. Scientists have tested some 80,000 animals of taken from Wuhan’s wet markets only to find no trace of the virus in any of them.
Right now there’s precious little real evidence to back either theory here, the “natural” animal-to-human explanation or the “lab leak.”
Both are plausible enough theories, but until very recently the mainstream media seemed to be interested only in the “natural” explanation, dismissing the “lab leak” theories as “conspiracy theories” or just plain bunk.
Why is that? Well, to an embarrassing degree it seems to have been a least in part a result of the distaste they felt for the most vocal supporters of the “lab leak” hypothesis — whom, to be fair, tended to be right-wing ideologues eager to blame China for accidentally or (in some versions of the story, purposefully) spreading the deadly virus which has now killed more than 3.5 million people around the world.
Proponents of the natural hypothesis have continually dismissed the idea of a lab leak as just so much nonsense, a “debunked” theory pushed by China-hating ideologues and conspiracy theorists.
In some ways they are acting like Bizarro World versions of MAGAheads who devote their political energy to “owning the libs.” On both sides of this issue, we find activists and academics and journalists who seem less interested in getting it right than they are in scoring points against their political adversaries. It’s a politics built on spite, in which one’s political virtue is defined by the difference between, say, Trump’s beliefs on COVID and your own. Some, as Jonathan Chait noted in New York magazine,
simply took Donald Trump’s bait, answering the former president’s dissembling with false certainty of their own.
It is not too early to grapple with the failures of the media, which reflect the wider struggles of trying to fairly convey the truth in an atmosphere deformed by misinformation. Rather than meet lies with truth, the media often met it with other lies. …
It is true that most of these outlets were more faithful to the truth than Trump, whose gusher of lies vastly exceeded whatever false claims trickled out of the liberal media. But Trump is not the right standard for journalists. And those who chose to follow the ethos of moral clarity, at the expense of objectivity, misled their audiences.
One of the most striking and discomfiting excuses for erthe media’s failure comes from the NY Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who, in an interview on CNN ,put the blame not on the journalists themselves but on Trump and secretary of state Mike Pompeo:
[B]oth suggested they had seen evidence this was formed in a lab, and they also suggested it was not released on purpose, but they refused to release the evidence showing what it was. And so because of that, that made this instantly political. It was example 1000 when the Trump administration learned, when you burn your own credibility over and over again, people are not going to believe you, especially in an election year.
But the issue isn’t whether Trump’s a liar; of course he is. But you can’t just dismiss what he’s saying because of his penchant for untruth; the job of the journalist is to independently assess whether there is any truth to his assertions. Trump’s dishonesty cannot be an excuse for media failures.
On his substack, Matthew Yglesias deconstructs what he calls, variously, “the media’s lab leak fiasco” and a “genuinely catastrophic media fuckup,” concluding that “this is a case of a smallish group of reporters and fact-checkers proclaiming a scientific consensus where none ever really existed.”
In the past several weeks, the once-largely dismissed lab leak theory has become more palatable to those in the press, in part due to several detailed and carefully argued pieces setting forth convincing arguments for, at the very least, looking more carefully at the case for the lab leak. (The piece that won me over was this one by former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade; there is also a smart piece by novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker in New York magazine.)
Some pieces — including “fact check” pieces devoted to trashing the lab leak theory — have been taken down or quietly revised as a result of this broader reconsideration. Looking back through much of the nonsense written over the last year or so in order to put down the lab leak theory, it’s hard not to cringe; the authors sound so certain about things we’re still nowhere near certain about.
Science is ever-changing; it’s contentious; it’s open to change when there’s new evidence or a new theory that explains the old evidence better. Scientific arguments, like political arguments, are rarely settled for good, and they’re definitely not settled by ignoring half the scientists out there because you’re not a fan of Donald Trump.
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